March 2020 is a month few people in America will ever forget. Here in Pennsylvania, our world as manufacturers came to an abrupt halt on Thursday, March 19, when Governor Tom Wolf ordered the closure of all businesses on the following day due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The only exceptions were those businesses listed as “life-sustaining.”
That night, my phone started blowing up while our family was eating dinner. We don’t allow phones at the table, but I could hear mine buzzing incessantly in the other room. Worried something very serious had happened, I finally answered and discovered that our company had been listed as “non-life-sustaining” and was required to close by 8:00 p.m. Friday, the following day. Having heard the bad news, my leadership team was worried about our operations as well as future employment. To be honest, so was I.
Early Warnings and a “Life-Sustaining Business”
My first step was to find out exactly what Pennsylvania considered a “life-sustaining” business and why. We located the official state document with the classifications of essential businesses. Unsurprisingly, forges and steel manufacturers were deemed essential due to their importance to national defense and transportation. However, we were surprised to find Onex was nonessential.
I thought, “How in the world can our clients operate safely and productively without refractory, repairs and services?” Obviously, the state’s classification of “life-sustaining” hadn’t fully grasped the critical importance of the supply chain.
Fortunately, like us, our clients immediately recognized this serious oversight. On the morning of Friday, March 20, Onex was sent a letter from one of our major clients in the forging industry stating “…that you (Onex) are providing essential work in support of our national defense-related efforts, including federal and United States government-funded contracts.” Our client also emphasized that it was their expectation “that Onex would continue to ensure continuity of our operations while operating safely and in compliance with the recommendations from the United States government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as well as any other governmental requirements.” This quick and formal response appropriately reclassified Onex as an essential business.
My first priority was ensuring the continuity of our operations. But how do we remain open and operate safely during an unprecedented pandemic? The challenges were daunting. Fortunately, we had taken the early warnings seriously and had begun preparations the week before. We started implementing a “telework” solution to allow some employees to work from home.
Unfortunately, we discovered that employees did not always have the right technology to do that. We needed to find additional laptops, business software, wireless access points and other IT infrastructure. The pressure was on, and my remarkable team closed the gaps. By the end of the day on Friday, everyone that could was working from home.
Back at the plant, much of Onex’s work requires us to have employees and managers in the plant or at clients’ sites. In addition to operations, managers have a range of other responsibilities that could be handled from home. We came up with an innovative coverage schedule, alternating days in the office and home, that minimized exposure by 50%.
Many of our employees can only work at the plant, however, so we needed to keep them safe and ensure business continuity. Within one week, we completely updated and implemented a variety of new policies and procedures. Obviously, Onex complied with all the new COVID-19 regulations, but more importantly we implemented common-sense changes too. Some of these included:
• Visitors were not allowed to access the Onex locations.
• Employees required to travel on Onex business were given letters authorizing them as essential personnel.
• We provided letters to critical suppliers identifying them as essential and asking them to notify Onex of any delays in their supply chain.
• Additional inventory was ordered to ensure clients’ emergency needs could be met.
• PPE needs were reviewed, and additional orders were placed as necessary to increase on-site supply.
• Hand sanitizer was purchased from a local distillery.
Honestly, I have never seen so many operational changes implemented in such a short period of time. The government’s response to the pandemic was fast-moving. Unfortunately, reliable information was not easy to find. Policies and data were often incomplete and ever-changing. This lack of clarity heightened our anxiety and added a level of frustration, but – as we always do – we kept improvising.
We all know the old saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” At Onex, our culture is built around a can-do attitude. Despite the terrible global pandemic, we decided to look for opportunities to make things better and generate a ripple effect of kindness.
When we found out all the rest stops were closed, Onex converted the women’s restroom in our plant and offered it for the convenience of truck drivers. Many women were now working from home, and those still on-site could use the office facilities. Additionally, restaurants and drive-through food services were also closed at that time. Hard-working truckers spent hours on the road with nothing to eat. We decided to set up a refreshment station on the shipping dock with water and snacks for the drivers.
On April 15, Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s physician general, signed an order directing specific protections for essential workers. This included face coverings. At that time, masks were more difficult to find. This started the Walters Mask Factory at my kitchen table. My two sons helped me assemble the masks, and they served as excellent mask models. With everyone scrambling for masks, fabric was also sold out in the stores, so we used sheets and shirts to convert into masks of varying patterns. It was a family undertaking. Even my mom and sister helped make masks at their homes and mailed them to us.
Work can be very strenuous in the plant, and we quickly discovered that masks often made breathing too difficult and fogged-up safety glasses. So we modified our approach to make better use of our spacious facility. We relocated work stations to keep everyone 6 feet apart whenever possible. Social distancing is also practiced during break times.
Ensuring the air in the plant is fresh and clean is critical to reduce transmission. We installed ionizers on our HVAC system and kept plant bay doors open for additional ventilation. In the offices, chairs were removed, and we rearranged our meeting rooms to increase worker separation during training and meetings.
Getting Back to “Normal”
On May 11, as the number of cases began declining, Onex began staggering the return of employees that had been teleworking. It was great to hear their voices in the office again. We still stayed in our offices or 6 feet apart, but it was nice to be together again. People are social by nature, and I believe it is better for our mental health to be working as a team again.
With everyone back in the office, we wanted to reduce travel outside and make it easier on our team. We also wanted to support our local restaurants, so we introduced a new approach and began providing snacks and lunches on-site.
These efforts and many more helped to create a more positive working environment in a chaotic and difficult time. I strongly believe that this positive can-do culture creates the conditions for success. Despite COVID-19, our dedicated team continues to serve our various clients’ daily needs in addition to some significant capital spending projects. This year, on the OEM side of the business for forging clients specifically, Onex has designed and/or built four new forge furnaces, removed an old furnace, relocated a furnace and upgraded the combustion controls on six furnaces. We are glad to see our forge clients still updating, expanding operations and generally persevering despite the pandemic.
A can-do culture needs talent. For years, the labor market has been so tight that we have not been able to add depth to the team as we wanted. During the pandemic, however, we saw an opportunity to bring on new talent and expertise. We were able to hire four new college graduates in marketing, accounting and engineering. We also expanded our technical-sales capability by hiring a talented individual displaced by the oil-and-gas industry. In addition, we have hired three new production personnel to support our manufacturing operations.
Lastly, we believe in our employees and support our community. As if COVID-19 was not enough to navigate, my husband, Drew, and I realized that Onex would be stronger if it were employee-owned, so we decided to enter into an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). As you can imagine, the pandemic created many additional challenges, but we cleared each obstacle.
On July 15, 2020, Onex legally became an employee-owned company, and we officially announced the change in ownership to our employees on Aug. 21, 2020. The decision to become an ESOP aligns with our longer-term vision to revitalize American manufacturing and encourage more interest in our industry.
Overcoming adversity is a part of life and a part of business. COVID-19 has been an unprecedented challenge for all of us. We can’t always control external circumstances, but I believe we can control how we respond. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is quoted as saying, “Life is what our thoughts make of it.” In this difficult pandemic, I like to think we chose to make things better – to make lemonade.